Invisible women

By Beth Osborne

Research and design are based on a test case human who stands in for the broader population. The default human that is the basis for research and design projects is usually a white adult male. As a result, projects often come to conclusions that do not address the needs of women, and some that are outright dangerous. Transportation projects and priorities are not immune to this bias.

This issue was recently tackled by a podcast called 99% Invisible, a show about the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about—the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world. Last week, the episode focused on how men are the default subjects of design and how that can have a huge impact on critical aspects of every day life, and the first example was a transportation case study focused on snow plowing priorities.

A study in Sweden found that assumptions made about travel patterns had a gender bias and resulted in a transportation system that was more dangerous to women.  Researchers discovered that men and women have different travel patterns.  The commute trip, which is often an important focus for transportation agencies, is the primary trip for men.  However, women tended to run errands for the household and take care of elderly family members. As a result, women were more likely to take non-work trips, trip chain, walk, and take transit.

When the Swedish town in the study put more emphasis on these non-work trips, they shifted their snowplowing strategy from one that prioritized major routes to job centers to one that focused first on local roads and sidewalks.  It had a huge impact. Emergency room admissions—for women in particular—dropped, and this approach had a corresponding economic impact due to lower healthcare costs. It turns out that driving through a few inches of snow is much less dangerous than walking through the snow.

We might find similar results here in the United States if we considered the needs of woman on equal footing with men. Would we find a different pattern of travel between women and men if we looked? If we considered those different needs, and adjusted our designs and management of the transportation system, could we save lives and reduce injuries? It will take trying the approach to find out.

Beth Osborne is Senior Policy Advisor for SSTI.